By NATHAN SOLIS
Morning light finds R.H. Lee alone at Offerman Woodshop in Glassell Park. This is her favorite time here because the machines are quiet. As shop manager, the 37-year-old is the first one through the door. As a designer and builder, Lee uses words like “materiality” and talks about how furniture fits into people’s lives.
While studying philosophy and art at Brown University, Lee began to build sets for the theater department. In graduate school she pursued experimental animation at CalArts because she wanted to incorporate narrative with illustrations and set building into film. But this meant working in a cubicle and letting her hands get soft. She dropped out of school and, as she puts it, “was fiending to get back into a woodshop.”
Then Lee met Nick Offerman and his canoe. Actor and all around spokesperson for woodwork, Offerman had just landed his role on TV’s Parks and Recreation. Lee worked with Offerman at the Glassell Park shop and helped him build a canoe. That’s when she became convinced that this was what she wanted to do with her career.
“That’s an awesome way to get to know someone. You spend a month intensively bending wood around a frame, and we used no fasteners, so it was real quiet work.”
After she enrolled in a three-week fine furniture course at the College of the Redwoods, Lee came back to L.A. and took on the job of shop manager. Offerman Woodshop is a collective of independent woodworkers, all of them working on unique, one-of-a-kind projects. Sometimes Lee takes on projects herself or she decides who fits what commissions best.
“I think we’re all L.A. misfits. It is sort of a weird kind of microcosm. We’re all working in this Midwestern barn in industrial L.A.”
Do you remember the first time you were handy?
I think I’ve been handy my whole life. I was enrolled in a kid’s carpentry program when I was a kid. My parents still have the things I made. They still have the crappy cutting board, and skateboards, and sawhorses. All that stuff was with hand tools. My parents were both craftspeople. Not professionally, but I just grew up with an ethos of making things. My mom made her own bread every day and my aunt is a weaver. We always made our own Halloween costumes. My parents were much more about making your own stuff. That’s part of the Berkeley way, you know.
Is a craftsperson like yourself insufferable when you go to a house that’s filled with IKEA furniture?
I have to shop at IKEA occasionally. There are certain things where IKEA is the answer. I certainly don’t have the time and money to make everything for my house. I think what depresses me is when people buy the really crappy stuff that’s made out of particle board. I know the materiality of things, and I know it’s just going to fall apart and be on the sidewalk in a year. I think people are comfortable in spending not a lot of money and then throwing it out, and that’s creating this whole problem.
There’s something about real wood that warms up the space. It’s also completely infinite, because you can always refinish it and sand it down. Whereas industrial materials have a total finite lifespan, and they’re probably off-gassing the whole time you have them and making you sick.
I’m definitely not a snob about craftsmanship because I know it costs a lot of money. In an ideal world everyone would know how to build their own stuff and furnish their own houses. But a lot of them don’t have the time or the space to work on that. Honestly some people don’t know how to use tools with their hands anymore, which is sad.
Is this a complete break from your college major?
It’s not. As far as the making, creating goes, it’s completely in line with it. I fled the over intellectualization of fine art, and I found woodworking more calming but not less philosophical. There’s a lot of down time, a lot of focus, rhythmical, physical time, which is very conducive to thought and methodology.
I teach woodworking in the art department at Cal State Long Beach. The director of the wood program there, Ryan Taber, has a background in art theory and sculpture, and he tapped me into this world of craft theory, which I had never really explored before. Sort of 15 years after graduating from Brown, I sort of rediscovered this whole realm of theory, but it’s dealing with craft in relation to fine art and capitalism and mass production.
I’m totally geeking out right now on that. It’s given me a new perspective on what I’m doing. It is exciting to see this come full circle. I’ve always seen this practice of wood working as separate from the intellectual side of my art theory background, and now I’m starting to see it connect.
Have you noticed hype in the boutique custom furniture market? Have you seen that Portlandia sketch where the guy is a furniture maker?
That’s an interesting thing – the idealization or romanticizing of the craftsperson. I love that sketch. It’s true that there’s this whole sexiness of the wood worker. We joke about that a lot here because the everyday reality is we’re not just here blowing sawdust off our perfectly chiseled forearms. People like to do videos where they’re drilling a hole in slow motion and you know what, I drilled that hole a hundred times and now my neck hurts.
I do feel like my friends, and the hipster culture, has glommed onto the craftsperson as this supremely hip person. I’m not saying that anyone thinks I’m supremely hip. But the idea of people who complain about their jobs is not lost on me. Sometimes I will say, ‘Yeah, I want to quit my job and make yogurt for a living.’ And other people say, ‘What, you have the most amazing job!’ It’s awesome, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it’s hard. Because it’s such a slow craft, and we’re trying to make it specialized and particular, that’s what I struggle with the most. The price point, because that means only certain people have access to it.
Now that I’m teaching and conducting workshops, teaching art students and other people, it has made me feel better about the whole craft. Anyone can make their own furniture. There’s ways to do it at home. That’s what gives me the most joy when I see people get going with that.
Favorite wood to work with? Most disagreeable types of wood?
I guess it’s cliché, but I love to work with walnut. We work with a lot of walnut here. It’s amazing to work with. It’s nice to machine, nice to cut with, the depth and contrast of colors you get are pretty amazing. The quote unquote exotic woods. African Mahogany just has really squirrely grain. Or a lot of hardwoods from South America have a dense oil content, and some of them have minerals in the wood fibers that will dull your tools. This block of Black Acacia I found in Elysian Park turned out to be the most hellacious wood. It’s about how hard and dense the wood is and how predictable the grain is.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.
The Eastsider’s Daily email digest includes all new content published on The Eastsider during the last 24 hours. Expect the digest to land in your in email in box around 7 p.m. It’s free to sign up!
Once you submit your information, please check your email box to confirm your subscription.